Taking a ‘STAND’: Scientology’s Latest Campaign for Religious Legitimacy


By Aled Thomas, PhD Candidate

The history of Scientology is peppered with conflicts between the Church of Scientology and its highly vocal critics. As ever, media depictions of the Church of Scientology (ranging from satirical lampoons to exposé documentaries) continue to be the main cause of Scientology’s woes in the public domain. Several documentaries on the activities of the Church of Scientology have been released in recent years, perhaps most notably Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief in 2015.

Image result for my scientology movie

The latest Scientology documentary to grab headlines is My Scientology Movie, featuring British documentary maker Louis Theroux. The Church of Scientology declined to take part in the documentary, and (according to Theroux) are in the process of making a response documentary based on him. Yet, frequent critics of the Church of Scientology may be surprised to learn of their recent shift towards a more reserved method of responding to critics, in a contrast to the fierce legal lawsuits with which the Church is often associated. As Lewis and Hellesøy (2016) note, the 2005 episode of South Park, ‘Trapped in the Closet’, (which famously ended with lead character Stan Marsh yelling “I’m not scared of you – sue me!”) marks an interesting point in the history of the Church, precisely because of the lack of lawsuit that followed the episode’s release. This is arguably the beginning of the Church of Scientology’s shift to its latest method of countering criticism: seeking status as a legitimate religion, and condemning its opponents for religious discrimination.
The release of Theroux’s documentary coincided with the Church of Scientology’s push of campaigns to secure its status as a religion. The first is STAND (Scientologists Taking Action Against Discrimination), a campaign “founded to put a stop to incitement of bigotry and hate crime, and to secure Religious Freedom for Man”. While STAND’s prime activities concentrate on protecting the Scientology religion (including reporting the hate crimes and dispelling myths regarding Scientology), it also aims to battle all forms of religious intolerance, linking back to Scientology’s emphasis on the human right to religious freedom. This demonstration of discrimination against Scientologists as being equally condemnable as any other form of religious discrimination points to the Church’s latest focus of combating critics by rebutting their accusations as religious bigotry, and portraying Scientology as an equally legitimate religion as more established movements.

It is this battle for its status as a ‘religion’ that leads to the Church of Scientology’s second recent campaign for religious legitimacy, its scientologyreligion.org website, for which the Church has turned to the expertise of the academic community. The website, which states that “the world’s foremost experts in the fields of comparative religion, history of religion, religious studies and sociology agree that Scientology is a world religion”, compiles works from renowned scholars on Scientology (including Beckford, Wilson, and Melton) to add emphasis to the Church of Scientology’s latest message to opponents: that Scientology is a legitimate religion, and as such should receive the rights of religious freedom.

This coupling of campaigning against discrimination and using the expertise of the academy to validate the religiosity of Scientology points to a Church that may be slightly more reserved than the one associated with ferocious legal battles, but is clearly still up for a fight. Time will tell how effective this new method will be for the Church of Scientology, but the conflict remains the same as it has for decades. The tactics may have changed, but both parties remain unchanged, and neither side is showing any sign of backing down yet.


Lewis, J. R. and Hellesøy, K. (2016) ‘Introduction’, in Lewis, J. R. and Hellesøy, K. (eds.), Handbook of Scientology, Leiden, Brill.

Paul-Francois Tremlett on Politics and Religion

Paul-Francois Tremlett recently appeared in the Student Hub Live’s (re)Freshers Event, talking about his work on religion and politics. He introduces Reassembling Democracy, an international project which the Open University is involved with, and talks about his work on protest and ritual, and non-human agents. You can watch the interview below, and you can read the transcript here.

SEMINAR: Stephen Quilley, “Environmentalism on the Margins”

We are looking forward to welcoming Dr. Stephen Quilley of the University of Waterloo, Ontario, to the Open University on April 19th. He will be presenting a paper entitled “Environmentalism at the Margins: Exploring existing possibilities for an alternative modernity” in room MR05, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, from 14:00-16:00 (abstract below). Please join us if you can for what is sure to be a lively and stimulating talk – and if you can’t be there in person, we’ll be streaming the presentation on our Facebook page. More details here – http://ow.ly/221U308tKjr.


Understood as a complex adaptive system and through the lens of Holling’s Panarchy heuristic, modern industrial capitalism is a ‘deep basin of attraction’. The global consumer society has proved itself to be a profoundly resilient system – resilient, but nevertheless biophysically limited.  As the metabolism of global civilization begins to breach significant thresholds and transgress ‘planetary boundaries’ humanity is approaching social-ecological ‘tipping points’.  Experiencing the concatenating effects of collapsing economies, degraded ecosystems, social crisis, political chaos, communal violence and war, failed and failing states are tracing the outlines of an undesirable basin of attraction defined by collapse. The challenge facing humanity amounts to a rather simple wicked dilemma: is it possible to reconcile technological and socio-political modernity (and all the requisite flows of materials, energy and information) with biosphere integrity and sustainable global life support systems. In this paper, we argue that the alternative modernity defined by this wicked problem should be envisaged as a ‘third basin of attraction’ i.e. the often-vaunted political economy of the ‘third way’ construed through the language of systems theory. In this paper, we explore the outlines of such an ‘attractor’ in terms of political economy, technological prerequisites and problems of culture/ontology. We explore some of the prefigurative possibilities evoked by various ‘environmentalisms at the margins’ i.e. counter-cultural lifestyles, intentional communities, disruptive technologies and practices, and alternative social commitments. These are building niches in diverse settings that could begin to contour space for a new kind of modernity, one that could enable socially and technologically complex human societies to thrive without compromising long-term ecological integrity.  Specifically, we investigate how community-based health systems, micro-fabrication and Maker culture, and new religious movements at the periphery of the environmental movement may contribute to a developing ‘third basin of attraction’ – an alternative to the primary basin of attraction of consumer capitalism and the all too near second basin of societal collapse.

Historical Religion in Contemporary Perspective?

Not only is it important to consider contemporary religion in its historical context, but we need to consider the study of contemporary religion in its historical context too.

Arrarnte elders, Alice Springs, 1896. Via Wikimedia commons.

Arrarnte elders, Alice Springs, 1896. Via Wikimedia commons.

I recently attended a talk by Professor James Cox on cultural memory among the Australian Aboriginal people. In particular, Cox focused on the work of T.G.H. (Ted) Strehlow among the Arrarnte people, recording the traditions of the Elders. Many of these stories and rituals were later compiled in Aranda Traditions (1947) and Songs of Central Australia (1971). He was initiated into the tribe, whereupon several of his elderly informants confided in him that they could not rely on their sons or grandsons to preserve their stories, rituals or sacred objects (tjurunga). If not for Strehlow, almost all of these would have been forgotten a generation later, which Cox described as a break in the chain of memory (invoking the work of Danielle Hervieu-Leger). However, Strehlow’s work has allowed the current generation to relearn these tales and practices, in what Cox described as a process of “repatriation”.

No doubt, this is an empowering situation for present-day Arrarnte people, and important for addressing the problematic legacy of colonialism. But this set me thinking about the idea of a chain of memory. How do we know for sure that this was an ancient tradition? Might it have been the case that the elders had forgotten as much of the traditions of their forefathers as the present generation had of theirs? The fact is, without evidence, we are simply guessing. Worse, we are possibly making the rather colonial assumption that such indigenous people existed in a timeless state, essentially unchanged since prehistory – at least until they encountered Europeans.

There is a tendency to see the modern world as something special, a period which is dramatically and fundamentally different from all that has gone before. For all that we have gained, the argument goes, like technology, literacy, human rights, we have lost other things, like community, simplicity, perhaps even enchantment. Before we could blame it on the Internet, the Victorians harked back to a pre-industrial pastoral existence as they rushed into the soot-smothered cities, and the incipient scholars of the Enlightenment harked back to the pagan grandeur of Greece and Rome.

Ironically, then, separating our age from what has gone before is exactly what previous ages have done. Modern scholars are no different; indeed, the idea is there from the moment that we started to look at modern society seriously. Weber saw an iron cage of disenchantment; Durkheim saw the complexification of society leading to anomie and suicide; Frazer saw a progression from magic to science, whereas Müller saw a degeneration from natural, pure religiosity. The secularisation thesis has been refined and reformulated over time, but was originally based upon the teleological idea of an inevitable move from superstition to religion to science. Yet as we now know, it is increasingly difficult to make the data fit this argument.

Perhaps this is the issue: data. The further back we go, the more we are working with official data and less with the thoughts, deeds and ideas of ordinary people. Where there are primary documents, they are difficult to read at face value due to years of interpretation and even redaction. But when looking at the modern world, we are awash with data, drowning in it almost, from every level and section of society.

The study of contemporary religion is rich in ethnological specificity and deals well with change. What would a study of indigenous religion – or Medieval Catholicism, or the Classical world – which assumed not stability and tradition, but constant reformulation, innovation and diversification look like? Understanding contemporary religion in historical perspective might be an approach which helps us to understand the religion of the past as well.

A Harvest of Fieldwork

As I recover from another academic conference, and contemplate the news that I’ve been awarded university funding to go full-time on my PhD here with the Open University, I’m looking back over an epic summer. This was my first sustained fieldwork experience after a number of exploratory visits to sites in previous years.Theo article

My research project investigates diverse, post-lineage forms of modern yoga practice, in some unusual environments. My focus is in part the practice itself – what it looks like and how it is experienced – but also the culture that sustains it. Mostly, that means immersing myself in a series of camps and small festivals held over the rather short British summer. It’s a culture I knew already a little, but this summer took my understanding of my subject, and the process of fieldwork itself, to a whole new level.

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On the death of a guru

Celebrating arti at the recently opened Swaminarayan BAPS Mandir in Preston

Celebrating arti at the recently opened Swaminarayan BAPS Mandir in Preston

On the 13th of August 2016, Pramukh Swami, the President and guru of the transnational Hindu movement Swaminarayan BAPS, died in his 95th year. Just over two weeks earlier, I had been doing a recce in the Swaminarayan BAPS Mandir (temple) in Preston for a film sequence we are making for our latest module (Exploring Religion). The devotion of members of the community to their guru was evident in almost everything they said.  Even more poignant in the light of events was their hope that, although Pramukh Swami had been in poor health for some years, they would yet have the joy of celebrating his 100th birthday in five years’ time.

I only learnt of Pramukh Swami’s death when the community contacted us to postpone the actual filming. What struck me almost immediately was that I had not learnt of this through the British media. Still in the media’s so-called  ‘silly season’ during the peak holiday period and the summer recess of parliament, I checked with several people closely involved in the study of religions, but none  recollected having seen or heard any mention of Pramukh Swami’s death in the British media. Newspapers in India, of course, were full of the news of the death of this major Hindu personality. I did come across tweets of condolence from a few British politicians, including the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, and later found an appreciation of Pramukh Swami’s life by Mark Tully (dated 29th August) in the online Guardian. But I waited in vain for wider coverage in the British media, other than in outlets specifically designed to serve British Asian communities such as Asian Image and Eastern Eye.

The British Hindu community, although often said to lack the media profile of some other religious groups in Britain, is a large and active one. Swaminarayan BAPS is currently the most dynamic strand of the Swaminarayan tradition with a highly visible presence in Britain because of its flagship mandir in Neasden (inspired by Pramukh Swami). Pramukh Swami, who had led Swaminarayan BAPS as President (from 1950) and then guru since 1971, had a global standing, and not just because of his temple-building, which had earned him a place in the Guinness Book of Records. Just as many Britons now have known no monarch other than Queen Elizabeth II, who came to the throne in 1952, so too, many Swaminarayan BAPS devotees have lived their whole lives under the inspiration and guidance of this one guru.

The limited interest shown by the media in Britain in the death of Pramukh Swami, an event of monumental significance for a large number of British Hindus, is surely revealing. Not about ISIS nor the wearing of burqas nor about gender and sexual politics in the Church of England, perhaps his death simply was not deemed ‘newsworthy’? Odd, really, when accounts of transgressions by gurus in India have previously found their way into British newspapers, although these gurus have had far less impact on British society than Pramukh Swami.


[I have delayed this blog as it would have been inappropriate to post this kind of reflection in the days immediately after the death of Pramukh Swami, although this is the period to which the blog refers.]

Gwilym Beckerlegge

IHR Modern Religious History seminar

Some of you may be aware of the Modern Religious History seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, which is convened by two members of the department – John Wolffe and John Maiden. The autumn series has now been confirmed, below.


Modern Religious History seminar

Autumn term, 2016-17

The seminar is held in the Olga Crisp room (N102) at the IHR, at 5.15pm. We usually go for drinks, followed by dinner, after the talk.

2 November – Dr Roland Quinault (IHR): Gladstone and the Roman Catholic converts.

16 November – Dr Andrew Holmes (Queen’s, Belfast): The United Kingdom as an Ulster-Scottish project: Presbyterianism, literature, and politics in the nineteenth century.

30 November – Dr Michael Ledger-Lomas (KCL): Faith and scholarship in Victorian England: Henry Wace and the Dictionary of Christian Biography (1877-87).

14 December – Dr Uta Balbier (KCL) “Praying for Billy”: religious practice and the shaping of a transnational evangelical community during the Billy Graham Crusades, 1950-1960.



BASR 2016!!

A very strong OU Religious Studies presence at BASR Conference this year: four faculty, four PhD students and 2 former PhD students. All taking a very active part in proceedings, giving papers, chairing round table discussions, etc.BASR 2016